Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Civil War Forts of Arlington Tour, Part II: Fort C.F. Smith & Fort Bennett

As I wrote in my last post, this past Saturday I went on a tour of Civil War forts sponsored by Arlington County.  Our first stop was Fort Ethan Allen, close to the Chain Bridge over the Potomac.  The group headed next to Fort C.F. Smith Park (2411 24th Street N., Arlington VA 22207), where our guide, David Farner, is park manager.  The 19-acre park contains the remains of Fort C.F. Smith, as well as a walking trail, ornamental peace garden, and bird creek.  A 20th-century mansion on the grounds can be rented for weddings and other occasions.  The property was purchased by Arlington County in the mid-1990s.  This move prevented the site from falling into the hands of private developers who may have been less inclined towards preserving and interpreting the history of the property. 

Fort C.F. Smith

The Union Army built Fort C.F. Smith in early 1863 to extend the "Arlington Line" of forts in Alexandria (now Arlington) County to the Potomac River.  This installation, together with Forts Strong, Morton, and Woodbury, served to protect the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal crossing at Aqueduct Bridge, near the current day Key Bridge.  Fort C.F. Smith also covered a tributary ravine of Spout Run that was not under the protection of Fort Strong's artillery.

The fort, built as a lunette with a west and south face, had a perimeter of 368 yards.  Of the two faces, only part of the west wall remains.  Although there were emplacements for 22 guns and four siege mortars, just16 guns and four mortars were installed.  Various buildings, including the mess hall, barracks, and officers' quarters were erected to the east of the fort, but these structures were torn down after the war, and no traces remain.  Fort C.F. Smith was garrisoned by troops from several regiments, including the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery, and the 4th Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.
The fort was built on land belonging to Thomas Jewell.  The Union Army wrecked Jewell's home, which was painted a distinct red, to make way for the fort.  Initially called the "Fort at Red House," the fort was named after Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, who commanded soldiers under Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson in February 1862. As the defeated Confederate force prepared to surrender, Smith advised that Grant ask the enemy for nothing less than "unconditional and immediate surrender." Grant obliged, and the "Unconditional Surrender" nickname stuck with Grant throughout the remainder of the war.  Smith died of complications from a seemingly minor non-combat leg injury in April 1862.

Major General C.F. Smith (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Several features of Fort C.F. Smith are still visible, including the west wall and ditch, north magazine, gun platforms, and bombproof. 

Looking towards the west wall and gun platforms.  A replica M1841 6-pounder occupies one of the emplacements. Visible in the foreground is a Civil War Trails marker, one of four historical markers on the property.

Co. F, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery along the west wall, August 1865.  This photograph was taken from the north magazine (courtesy of the Library of Congress). 

Remains of the north magazine near the west rampart of the fort.

A close-up view of the 6-pounder in an emplacement along the west wall.  A limber sits in front of the north magazine.

Well-preserved remains of gun placements along the west wall.

Looking along the west face of the fort towards the north.  The ditch is clearly visible below.

Remains of the western side of the bombproof.

Co. K, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, in front of the east side of the bombproof. The timber was removed after the war, and today, only remnants of the dirt cover are visible.
Fort Bennett

After completing our tour at Fort C.F. Smith, we headed deeper into another residential neighborhood and parked around the 1600 block of 22nd Street N.  A historical marker tells the story of Fort Bennett, but no traces of the fort remain. The marker is actually located downhill from the original site of the fort, now buried underneath the suburban streets.  Arlington also runs  Fort Bennett Park, which overlooks the Potomac River and Georgetown.  We made a quick stop at the park to examine the terrain.

Fort Bennett Historical Marker, 22nd Street N., Arlington, Virginia.

In May 1861, the Union Army entered Virginia and began construction of the first defensive works. Fort Bennett, with a perimeter of just 146 yards and five artillery emplacements, was designed to protect the Aqueduct Bridge and lend support to nearby Fort Corcoran. Looking at the commanding position above the Potomac River and Key Bridge from Fort Bennett Park, I gained a good understanding of why the fort was built in this area. The fort's namesake is Captain Michael P. Bennett of the 28th New York Infantry, who directed its construction.

Close-up view from Fort Bennett Park across the Potomac to the surviving abutment of the Aqueduct Bridge in Georgetown.

View of Aqueduct Bridge from across the Potomac in Virginia, roughly in the same spot where the above photograph was taken (courtesy of the Library of Congress).
After this short stop at the Fort Bennett site, we set out for our final stop. Overall, I was very impressed by Fort C.F. Smith.  Along with Ft. Ward in Alexandria, Fort C.F. Smith is one of the best sites to visit in the Civil War defenses of Washington.  As the pictures indicate, the remains of the fort are very well preserved, and a visitor can really get a sense for the apprearance of the place during the war.  Fort Bennett represents the opposite extreme -- history lost to time and development.  At least a marker bears witness to what happend on the heights of Arlington nearly 150 years ago.


Anonymous said...

I am enjoying following your tour - thanks for sharing the great photos!

I recognize the dude in the high silk hat from another Fort Corcoran photo:

Any idea who this guy is?

Keith Yoder

Ron Baumgarten said...


I am glad you are enjoying the tour.

That man in the silk hat is everywhere. Interesting find! I have a feeling he is associated with the photographer. I think the tour guide said that the photos of Ft. C.F. Smith were by Brady's studio, so perhaps someone from there? If anyone knows for sure, give a shout out.


Ron Baumgarten said...


I dug around a bit more, and found out that the Aqueduct Bridge picture was by William Morris Smith, an Alexander Gardner photographer. It looks like Smith took several pictures of the forts and other site around DC during the war, including Ft. C.F. Smith. Perhaps the mysterious man is someone who was working with Gardner and Smith at the time. I will let you know if I find out more.

Thanks for pointing this out, and for reading!